Forces For Change

Tact & Tactics: Meet The Leading Women Diplomats Representing Britain Abroad

In the traditionally male field of diplomacy, women are taking their place at the top. By Olivia Marks. Photograph by Greg Kahn. Styling by Patrick Mackie
Image may contain Clothing Apparel Furniture Couch Human Person Long Sleeve Sleeve Coat Overcoat and Living Room
Greg Kahn

It was a summer’s afternoon in New York, and Karen Pierce, then Permanent Representative of the United Kingdom to the United Nations, was hosting a party to mark the Queen’s official birthday. In the garden of the UN headquarters in Manhattan’s Midtown East, a trestle table heaved under 500 cupcakes arranged in the shape of the Union Jack, while military attachés mingled with senior officials over drinks and music. “But the standout,” recalls Pierce proudly, “was the Brazilian drag queen.”

That year, you see, Her Majesty’s birthday celebration coincided with the city hosting WorldPride, and the spicier than usual event was made “even more delicious” when a downpour forced partygoers – and performers – inside to the Sputnik Lounge, a Russian-sponsored part of the UN foyer. “And the Russians are not helpful, to put it mildly, on LGBTQ rights,” says Pierce with relish. “It was one of those great occasions where there’s a mini crisis and everyone mucks in, but it also sent a really serious message about diversity.”

It is an anecdote that typifies the flamboyant style that Pierce, at 61, has gained a reputation for over her 40-year career as a diplomat, both at the negotiating table and in what she wears to it. The feather boa and leather jacket she donned to accuse Russia of turning a blind eye to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, just days after she confronted Russia’s UN envoy over the Novichok attack in Salisbury, have become renowned – as has the way she referenced Sherlock Holmes to make her point in their barbed back-and-forth. But she wants to clear up one thing: it was a blazer, “Not a leather jacket,” she bristles. “I don’t own a leather jacket.”

Pierce doesn’t consider talk of clothes reductive – she famously wore stilettos during her posting to Afghanistan as “sometimes it could be really unpleasant and frightening,” but, she says, straightforwardly, “it’s a way of holding on to who you are”. Perhaps the bigger question is: why don’t we expect our diplomats to look like Pierce? After all, in the past three years she has occupied the two most prestigious jobs in British diplomacy, punching through the so-called glass ceiling not once, but twice: as the first woman in her role at the UN, and then again when she was named British Ambassador to the United States in February 2020.

Today, she is one of the crucial players in ensuring that the UK’s “deeply rooted, profound” special relationship with America not only persists under Joe Biden, but thrives. “I do find myself every so often hankering for a bit of New York glamour,” she says from the smart Lutyens-designed ambassadorial residence in DC, a sunset-hued silk scarf lifting a black suit. “But in Washington, what’s in the air is [and here she narrows her eyes, drops an octave] power. And I really like that.”

Pierce may have blazed one particular trail, but she is far from the only woman in the Foreign Office leading the charge for Britain on the world stage – nor the only one who has broken barriers. Women now make up more than 30 per cent of all heads of missions around the globe, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, and this year, for the first time, all of the UK’s ambassadors to the P5, the permanent members of the UN’s security council (America, Russia, China and France, on top of the UK) are women. In a game of diplomatic musical chairs, Pierce vacated her seat at the UN for Barbara Woodward, who in turn was superseded in China by Caroline Wilson last September. Deborah Bronnert has been in her role as Ambassador to Russia since January 2020. By the time Menna Rawlings takes up her post in Paris this summer, breaking the exclusively male run of ambassadors, she says, “18 of 26 top diplomatic posts will be filled by women. And that,” Rawlings tells me, “is extraordinary.”

It is. Particularly when you consider that until 1973, the “marriage bar” meant women in the Foreign Office were forced to resign from their emissary roles once they wed. Until then, the choice between having a personal life and a professional one was stark: you had either a career or a family, but you couldn’t have both. Well into the 1980s, a woman in the Foreign Office could find the state of her marriage – and her spouse’s attitude – commented on in her formal annual appraisal.

Caroline Wilson, British Ambassador to China: “I have to say that it was a shock for some members of the community.” How so? “Well they called me ‘sir’, for a start”

The generation since has been dismantling this legacy. Menna Rawlings (a “diplomum” as she refers to herself on Instagram) has brought up three children between Accra, Tel Aviv, Washington and Canberra. Now 53, she joined the Foreign Office in 1989, aged 21, brimming with wanderlust after a childhood of holidays in Wales; Barbara Woodward, 59, had already settled on a career in diplomacy by the time she sat her A-levels. Most ambassadors are career diplomats like these women, working their way up the ranks of the Foreign Office, and hopefully, eventually, being appointed to the top jobs by the foreign secretary and the prime minister (the Queen must also approve all appointments).

All have broken the mould. Deborah Bronnert, 54, was the first female envoy to Zimbabwe, where she represented the UK during Mugabe’s reign, while Caroline Wilson, 50, was the first woman to be British Consul General in Hong Kong. “And I have to say,” recalls Wilson from her office in Beijing, “that that was a shock for some members of the community.” How so? “Well they called me ‘sir’, for a start,” she says, laughing. “So it took them a while to get used to me. But in the end, it turned out to be a great thing. Sometimes as a woman you have a higher profile, which is problematic if you’re not doing a great job, but great if you are.”

As senior diplomats in 2021, these women have their work cut out. Their to-do list includes shaping the UK’s international reputation, building allegiances, and making its stance clear on global issues from human rights and the climate crisis to the rise of China, the Russian threat, cyber security and coronavirus. Added to this, of course, is the fact that Britain is at an extraordinary crossroads in its own story. Post-Brexit, as we seek new trade deals and new friendships, and to reassert our influence, the fear in some corners has been that the UK’s prominence will be undermined. It is up to these women to ensure that it is not.

From her office at the UK Mission to the UN in Manhattan, Barbara Woodward seems distinctly untroubled by any idea that the UK’s position may have been weakened. Having ascended to her current position via China and Russia – one of the proudest moments of her career was securing the peaceful release of British hostages from “pretty lawless” Chechnya in 1998 – this is the first time she has ever worked in an office where the level of security actually allows windows: the views of Roosevelt Island and the East River are, she says, smiling, “spectacular”. While there has been some gentle “ribbing” from her new UN colleagues about our departure from the EU, she insists, “The UK is now coming out of what was quite an introspective period during Brexit into a period where people are feeling our global presence and our global leadership again.”

She points to the prestige events that Britain is hosting this year as proof: next month the G7 summit will take place in Cornwall, with an emphasis on building a more prosperous, greener future after the pandemic; that will be followed in November by the climate change conference COP26 in Glasgow, which is expected to be the largest ever gathering in Britain of foreign heads of state. John Kerry, the US climate envoy, has solemnly described it as the world’s “last best chance” to avoid climate catastrophe.

Deborah Bronnert, British Ambassador to Russia: “We have very profound differences, on human
rights, on the way we see the world, on our values”

Alexei Nikolsky

All the ambassadors are in agreement that the priority is bringing the world together to save the planet. “Every single country has to step up,” says Bronnert from her fabulously ornate working residence on the bank of the Moskva River, opposite the Kremlin Palace. “Russia is the fourth largest global emitter, it’s also got 20 per cent of the world’s forests, so it has a big contribution to make.” The question is, can Russia – can we all – be relied upon to step up?

When Biden re-entered the Paris Agreement hours after being sworn in as president, the world breathed a collective sigh of relief. Not only was it a sign that the US was once again committed to tackling the climate emergency, but it symbolised America’s return to a foreign policy defined by liberal internationalism. Is the mood lighter with Trump’s departure?

“I would say it is,” nods Pierce, who described the storming of the Capitol in January as “shocking and distressing”. She continues, “To be honest, America has been subdued for several years. This is not particularly about President Trump,” she clarifies. “I just think it has been. To hear what President Biden says about American leadership, about human rights, the support for allies and for Nato, about coming back into the Iran deal, and the plan to build back better after Covid – I find it energising.”

Having worked in Washington under both Trump and Biden, how would she categorise the main differences between their administrations? “America is America,” she says, smiling, ever the diplomat. “So one should always bear that in mind. It would be wholly wrong to think it’s going to be a lot easier just because President Biden is in office. America is very, very good at looking after her national interests and defining what those interests are.” She does at least concede with brilliant understatement that “this administration is more predictable in the way it goes about its business”.

This isn’t a description that you would readily use for Vladimir Putin’s government. “Look, we’ve got a really difficult relationship with Russia now,” Bronnert says frankly. “We have very profound differences, on human rights, on the way we see the world, on our values. But it’s really important that we’re not here to interfere with other countries – it’s how you can engage and influence in a respectful way that hopefully enriches everybody.”

That said, “There are limits,” she continues. “Things like the use of chemical weapons, that’s not something that I’m talking about respecting. As a diplomat, I have to be really conscious of the need to keep our country safe. Standing up for that in a way that is clear and respectful is a really important part of the work here. And even if that can be a bit uncomfortable for those of us sitting in Moscow, I’m not going to apologise for that.” But Bronnert has past form on standing up to formidable male leaders: her first meeting with Robert Mugabe ended up being a 90-minute confrontation about British involvement in Zimbabwe.

Barbara Woodward, Permanent Representative of the United Kingdom to the United Nations: “The UK is now coming out of what was quite an introspective period during Brexit... people are feeling our global presence and our global leadership again”

WPA Pool

“Lecturing from the Brits is not necessarily the best way to achieve your outcomes,” admits Rawlings. “An important thing to remember, as a Brit, and as a British diplomat, is that we have a lot of baggage in quite a lot of places.” In Rawlings’s previous role, as High Commissioner to Australia, she personally officiated many same-sex marriages in the British High Commission, in the period when it was legal in the UK but still unlawful in Australia. It was a fine line to tread: “It was their decision to change the law,” says Rawlings. “We were never telling them what to do.”

Rawlings knows that, when she begins her role in France, there will be some “fences that need to be mended. But I think what we’re finding is that there is a willingness on their side as well to focus on a fresh chapter in the relationship. We have had bumpy times in recent months and years, but essentially, when the chips are down, we really lean into each other. Our values are incredibly closely aligned, and that leads us to work together on all sorts of issues, be that the situation in places like Myanmar or Hong Kong, or conversations we have on a very deep and private level about the rise of China. We’re almost always on the same side.”

Meanwhile in Beijing, a couple of days before we speak, Caroline Wilson made headlines for an article she had written in Mandarin about the dire need for a free press –a cause China is, how shall we say, less than supportive of. The content was distinctly tame to British eyes, but it so infuriated the Chinese that Wilson was summoned by the Foreign Ministry and given a stern dressing down. Does she think she overstepped the mark? “No, Olivia, I don’t,” she says with an exasperated chuckle. “It’s a topic which has become so important and where the situation has been deteriorating so rapidly, and the environment for foreign journalists, in particular for British journalists, has been so repressive, that in the end I came to the conclusion that I had to speak out. It’s all very well to talk about values, but you have to espouse your own.” Indeed, since we spoke, Dominic Raab has confirmed that four Chinese officials will be sanctioned by the UK over the “appalling violations” of human rights against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, which he has described as “one of the worst human rights crises of our time”.

At the time of writing, Wilson remains in her role. But when Kim Darroch, Pierce’s predecessor in Washington, described President Trump’s government as “dysfunctional” and “inept” in leaked private correspondence to colleagues, he was forced to resign. Certain commentators have posited that Boris Johnson – once described as the “Britain Trump” by Donald himself – should have condemned the former president’s actions in some areas more vociferously than he did.

Pierce doesn’t agree. “There will always be disagreements of policy between any American administration and any British one, doesn’t matter who’s in power on either side of the Atlantic,” she says. “It’s the fact that those disagreements don’t disrupt the relationship, that is the special part. And certainly Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab, me – we have all pushed back on Trump policies where we disagreed with them. Theresa May, for example, was very firm on his treatment of migrant children, and we took a very different view over Black Lives Matter.”

Menna Rawlings, newly appointed British Ambassador to France: “An important thing to remember is that we have a lot of baggage in quite a lot of places”


It is no secret that Biden is not a fan of Brexit. Does Pierce think that will impact a trade deal between Britain and America? “No, I don’t think that’s a problem at all, to be honest. Boris Johnson was the first European leader President Biden called when he was elected. They are both very affable politicians, they believe in personal relationships and work hard at them. So far, the calls they’ve had have been very warm.”

When we speak, Pierce has met Biden only once, at his inauguration (“I’d never seen Lady Gaga in the flesh before, that was fantastic”). Covid has curtailed opportunities to meet in person, which has added another obstacle to the job. “Diplomacy is a contact sport,” says Pierce. “Washington is very much the sort of place that does thrive on these big dinners, where a huge amount of business gets done.” Without them, she says, “relationships become transactional.”

It is still, perhaps, the image of a cigar-smoking, whisky-drinking John le Carré character we go to when we picture an official embassy dinner. Part of the reasoning for upholding the marriage bar was that it was inconceivable that a woman could do business in such a set-up, or that a man would want to follow his wife around the world and look after the children, even now. “There have been times when people have come through the door and assumed my husband is the big cheese,” says Menna Rawlings. “They make a beeline for him.”

“We took a really early decision to go with my career because, frankly, it was more exciting than his,” she continues. “But it didn’t stop people asking him, ‘What are you going to do?’ And he’d say, ‘Well, I’m looking after the children because Menna’s working incredibly hard.’” Of course, moving children around the world is no walk in the park. “I guess it’s like a lot of parenting,” says Bronnert, who has two young sons, philosophically. “You just have to keep talking to them and explaining and compromising where you can.”

If impressive gains have been made in the Foreign Office for working mothers and the progression of women into senior roles, there is still a long way to go to reach the Government’s goal of a Whitehall that looks like the country it serves. As a schoolgirl in Preston, it was a photograph of the African-American diplomat Eleanor Hicks that first inspired Pierce to pursue a career as a diplomat. But it was only in 2018 that the first black British woman career diplomat, NneNne Iwuji-Eme, was appointed as a High Commissioner, to Mozambique. “We need her not to be quite so remarkable,” says Pierce seriously. “There’s a saying that you can’t be what you can’t see, and I wouldn’t like anyone to think, ‘I can’t do it because there’s no one like me.’”

Pierce’s two grown-up sons have left home, and she now has what she describes as a “commuter” relationship with her husband, Charles Roxburgh, who works in the Treasury. “We always had this philosophy,” she says, “that we would go the extra mile to find the way to make careers and family work, rather than one of us not take a job.”

Our time is up, but I have to know: if it weren’t for the pandemic, would Pierce have already thrown one of her renowned parties? “You can’t print this, otherwise the Foreign Office will sack me,” she says. “But I would have thrown one a day.” Washington, get ready.